This Alabama-Auburn Iron Bowl thriller will take a while to process
Auburn cornerback Chris Davis (11) returns a missed field-goal attempt 100-plus yards to score the game-winning touchdown as time expired in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against No. 1 Alabama in Auburn, Ala., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013. Auburn won 34-28. (AP Photo/The Gadsden Times, Eric T. Wright)
AUBURN, Ala. — Not that it will make Georgia feel any better. But that last-minute, fourth-down, heave-it-to-the-heavens-pass-and-let-it-bounce-off-a-defender-to-a-receiver touchdown that buried the Bulldogs two weeks ago just became a relative afterthought in Auburn’s season.
Also, Nick Saban was being second-guessed Saturday.
Really, outside of that, it was a perfectly normal day in Auburn, where Alabama lost, Auburn won and unicorns frolicked.
One season removed from going 0-8 in the SEC and firing its coach, Gene Chizik, Auburn completed a miracle finish to the conference title game. Trailing 28-21, the Tigers tied the score on 39-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds left, and then — as the script transitioned from improbable to fantasy — won it 34-28 on a 100-yard return of a missed 57-yard field goal by Chris Davis with no time remaining.
“First I ever lost a game that way. First time I’ve ever seen a game lost that way,” Saban said.
Auburn seemed quite fine with it.
Davis was asked what was going through his mind as he was running past frantic Alabama defenders down the left sideline to the end zone.
“When I looked back, I said: I can’t believe this,” he said. “When I was running I said: God is good.” At the risk of upsetting the spiritual apple cart and suggesting a deity has been on Auburn’s side in the last two games, it seems safe to conclude a greater being has been lounging on the Plains.
Saban’s team, ranked No. 1 from Day 1, led 21-7 in the second quarter and 28-21 until the final minute.
This college football season seemed to cling to only one final certainty heading into the final weeks: Alabama going from post to post to win its third straight national championship and fourth in five years. That won’t happen now.
The Crimson Tide have been knocked from the top of the BCS rankings. They’re also out of next week’s SEC Championship game and replaced by Auburn.
You also wonder if Auburn may have eliminated the SEC’s chances of extending its string of seven consecutive BCS championships, as unbeaten Florida State and Ohio State are likely to move up to Nos. 1 and 2 respectively in the rankings.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn wasn’t sure what to think afterward. He was understandably drained after the win. The end of this game would have been difficult for anybody to absorb, even the thousands of Auburn fans who swarmed the Jordan-Hare Stadium field afterward.
“Right now I just know we beat our rival and we’re going to the SEC championship,” he said. “We’ll let everybody else figure that out.” When asked if this was the biggest win of his career, Malzahn said: “You know, there’s a lot emotion right now. A huge win. Against our rival. We’re going to (play for) the SEC championship. Playing at home in front of our fans .” At that point, Kristi Malzahn, the coach’s wife, who was standing nearby, said, “Just say yes.” Malzahn then smiled slightly.
“Probably yes.” Two weeks ago, Auburn beat Georgia 43-38 on a deflected, fourth-and-18, 73-yard touchdown pass from Nick Marshall to Ricardo Louis with 25 seconds remaining.
On Saturday, Alabama took a 28-21 lead on a 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper early in the fourth quarter. But later in the quarter, Saban - whose kicker, Cade Foster, missed two field-goal attempts, had another block, and had one nullified by a penalty - bypassed a 30- or 31-yard attempt that might’ve given the Tide a 10-point lead. On fourth-and-1 from the Auburn 13, Auburn stopped T.J. Yeldon for no gain with five and a half minutes left.
“I know some people will say we should’ve gone for it, but we tried from that spot and missed,” Saban said, referencing a 33-yard attempt early in the fourth.
Alabama still appeared headed for a win until Marshall drove Auburn 83 yards for a touchdown with 32 seconds left, with the tying score coming on a 39-yard pass to Sammy Coates.
On the ensuing possession, Alabama drove from its 29 to the Auburn 38, setting up a 57-yard field-goal attempt with one second left. Malzahn called time out - partly to “freeze” kicker Adam Griffith and also to put Davis in the end zone to return the kick, just in case. As expected, the field goal try fell short (and wide right). Davis fielded it in then end zone, began his return up the middle, then cut left and flew down the sideline and into the end zone for the score.
When’s the last time anybody even saw a field-goal attempt returned, let alone 100 yards for a touchdown . in a game with conference- and national-championship ramifications? Alabama players stood on the sideline stunned as fans poured onto the field.
Not that this game needed another footnote but here it is: Alabama was 73-3 when leading at halftime under Saban. One of those losses came to Auburn in 2010. (Miracle worker that season: Cam Newton.) A year ago at this time, Auburn lost to Alabama 49-0 to complete a 0-8 season in the SEC. Coach Gene Chizik, two years removed from the BCS championship, was fired. It was one of the more spectacular crashes for a recent national champion in college football history.
Malzahn, the new coach, stopped the bleeding. Also the mocking. The Tigers were 11-1 and ranked No. 4 going into Saturday, but it’s fair to say the Alabama game was a test of their legitimacy. They had played only three ranked teams all season: LSU (which they lost to by two touchdowns), No. 24 Mississippi (a 30-22 win) and No. 25 Georgia (a 43-38 win on a fluky desperation Hail Mary pass that bounced off the hands of a Georgia defensive back).
Since winning in Tuscaloosa in 2010, Auburn also had lost twice to Alabama by a combined score of 91-14. Nick Saban, as it turns out doesn’t take losing well.
In the second quarter, it appeared Auburn might be host to another grease fire. The Tigers led 7-0, via a 45-yard touchdown run by Marshall, but Alabama scored three touchdowns in a span of seven minutes in the second quarter to take a 21-7 lead. One AJ McCarron touchdown pass of three yards completed an 11-play drive. A second McCarron scoring pass of 20 yards came four plays after an Auburn fumble. A T.J. Yeldon touchdown run followed Alabama competing a 14-yard pass that first bounced off the hands of an Auburn defender (and Georgia fans laughed).
But the Tigers didn’t fold. They simply stepped on the gas. The hurry-up offense that Saban disdains began punching holes in the Alabama defense. The Tigers drove to touchdowns late in the first half and early in the second. With Alabama’s defense looking confused and/or gassed, Marshall moved the offense 69 yards in only 2:57, tying the game at 21-21 on a 13-yard scoring pass to C.J. Uzomah.
“We got our rhythm going,” Malzahn going.
And then, fantasy took over. This one may take a while to process.